Maui-born master navigator dies at 64
Chad Kalepa Baybayan served as captain, navigator for Hokule‘a
Chad Kalepa Baybayan, Lahaina’s own master navigator and a lead captain of Hokule’a, has died, after decades of inspiring and educating others about the sea and stars, including his own daughter, who sailed with him aboard the legendary voyaging canoe.
The 64-year-old, who now lives in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii island, died “suddenly but from natural causes” while he was visiting and caring for family in Seattle, according to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai’i, where Baybayan served as navigator-in-residence.
A memorial is pending with a virtual connection to services in the works, said Ka’iu Kimura, executive director of the astronomy center.
“I will miss his energy and passion for sharing knowledge with audiences from keiki to kupuna — both local and global,” said Kimura, who sailed with Baybayan between the islands and from Okinawa to Japan. “(Baybayan) never said ‘no’ to any request to share the experiences and knowledge he acquired through navigation/the canoe.”
Baybayan, who was a crew member, captain and navigator aboard the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Hokule’a throughout the Pacific and beyond, was born and raised in Lahaina and graduated from Lahainaluna High School in 1974. He received a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian Studies from the University of Hawai’i and later earned a master’s in Education, according to the center. However, his main classroom was Hokule’a.
Baybayan told The Maui News in 2017 that the sight of the double-hulled voyaging canoe sailing past his house in 1975 sparked a fascination he’d always had “how the island came to have been settled by the first oceanic mariners.”
He eventually was invited on board and crewed Hokule’a in 1980 as the famous navigator Nainoa Thompson guided the canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and back for the first time.
“It was the culmination of a lifelong aspiration to sail on board a canoe,” he said in 2017. “I never realized it was the beginning of what’s become a lifestyle for me.”
Baybayan was mentored by master navigator Mau Piailug, who is credited for reviving the art of noninstrument navigation in Hawaii. Piailug later bestowed upon Baybayan the esteemed title of pwo navigator, or master navigator.
Baybayan sailed thousands of miles and also was one of the lead captains and navigators of the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage with Hokule’a and Hikianalia from 2013 to 2017, according to ‘Imiloa.
Crew members who sailed with Baybayan developed deep friendships and respect for him.
Abraham “Snake” Ah Hee of Lahaina, who has been sailing with Hokule’a since the 1970s, grew emotional as he looked back on the years spent on the canoe with Baybayan.
“He was a good person, easy to be with,” Ah Hee said.
“Whatever I did on the canoe, he didn’t say anything, I was there trying to make everything easier for everybody and be safe.”
Ah Hee’s wife Myrna said Baybayan often called her husband to be on his crew, and the two sailed together on the worldwide voyage. She said the men were “in sync” with one another and became like family. Both were from Lahaina and paddled with the Napili Canoe Club years ago.
The couple recalled Baybayan’s intelligence and said he had a way of breaking down navigation so it could be taught to others.
“He could catch on so fast,” Snake Ah Hee said. “To me, he pretty much made his own system to teach” navigation.
Another famed Lahaina waterman and Hokule’a crew member called Baybayan’s passion for voyaging “unexplainable.”
“He made the best of it. He made it to the top,” said Archie Kalepa, Baybayan’s first cousin.
Kalepa said that their grandfather, Dallas Kalepa Sr., passed down some of that love and knowledge of the ocean to the boys when they were youngsters growing up in Lahaina.
“We did look forward going fishing with grandpa,” said Archie Kalepa, recalling how they would frequent areas such as Olowalu and Lone Pine.
A retired lifeguard captain and accomplished surfer, paddler and sailor, Kalepa has sailed with Baybayan from time to time since 1992.
“Like when I look back now, at all the things he had done, his leadership skills, his ability to do the homework, especially during the worldwide voyage, he did a lot of research that helped the crews that he was captaining, knowing about the place or knowing about the anchorage of the place,” Kalepa said. “Those kinds of things that is really necessary to empower others. I think it was really awesome.”
“And he was strict, real strict,” he added with a chuckle. “I made sure I never got on that side of him. I made sure I did what he said.”
Kalepa, who said he was getting emotional talking about Baybayan, also remembered his cousin’s great love of teaching.
“He was just a great pillar to the Polynesian Voyaging Society, to our family to our ohana,” Kalepa said. “His daughter is a living legacy of that today, Kala.”
Baybayan and his daughter, Kala Baybayan Tanaka, sailed together for the first time around 2007, on the Hokualaka’i canoe from Oahu to Maui.
“Actually, my mother told me, ‘You need to take your daughter.’ I never knew she was interested,” Baybayan told The Maui News in 2017. “So what mom orders me to do, I got to (do).”
At night, Baybayan taught the crew about the stars, and in the morning, he helped his daughter listen to the sound of dolphins breathing alongside the canoe.
“That was the hook,” Tanaka told The Maui News in 2017. “Then I wanted to know everything after that.”
She described her father as a “very quiet person at home” and also on the canoe.
“I just really enjoy this special relationship that I get to share with my dad,” she said.
Baybayan is also survived by his wife Audrey; his mother Lillian Suter; three children, Kala Baybayan Tanaka, Pukanala Llanes and Aukai Baybayan; along with siblings: Clayton Baybayan, Lyle Baybayan, Lisa Baybayan (Sister Anne Marie) and Ted Suter, according to ‘Imiloa.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.